Subscription Theater asks why turn-of-the-century British and Irish citizens spent so much time, money, and effort joining subscription lists. Matthew Franks argues that subscribers have been responsible for how we value audience and repertoire today, offering a new account of the relationship between ephemera, drama, and democracy.
2020 | 296 pages | Cloth $89.95
Cultural Studies / Literature
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Stages of Subscription
Chapter 1. Private Subscription: The Incorporated Stage Society and Ephemeral Repertoire
Chapter 2. Public Subscription: Audience Impressions in Dublin, Glasgow, and Liverpool##
Chapter 3. Subscription On and Beyond the Stage
Chapter 4. Affiliative Subscription: Paying to Play with Amateur Groups
Chapter 5. Virtual Subscription: The Mask as Readers' Theater
Epilogue. Subscribe Now
Stages of Subscription
In 1996, playwright August Wilson delivered a speech to the U.S. Theatre Communications Group in which he called subscribers the "life blood" of American theater. "But," he continued, "the subscription audience holds the seats of our theatres hostage to the mediocrity of its tastes, and serves to impede the further development of an audience for the work that we do. While intentional or not, it serves to keep blacks out of the theatre where they suffer no illusion of welcome anyway. A subscription thus becomes not a support system but makes the patrons members of a club to which the theatre serves as a clubhouse." Disparaged for their insularity, subscribers are as vital to today's theater as Wilson's hematic metaphor acknowledges. Although their numbers have fallen in recent years, subscribers remain the largest individual donors, the second-highest revenue contributors, and the surest return visitors to not-for-profit U.S. theaters. In Britain, government cuts are prompting more and more subsidized theaters to adopt similar membership schemes, from the National Theatre to the Donmar Warehouse to the Leicester Curve. For theater and performance scholars as much as for professional theater producers, subscription lists offer among the clearest documentation of the individuals who have comprised theater audiences over the last century. Yet despite the centrality of subscription to theater, beyond trade journals and industry books, we have largely ignored the funding model's origins or impact.
When we mention subscribers at all, we highlight their homogeneity. Richard Schechner has asserted that the "subscription audience" is "not a very representative one." For him and other critics, subscription forecloses diverse races, incomes, and ages by pursuing "that '2%' of the population who will pay to go to the theatre"—in other words, those who are white, middle class, and middle-aged or older. This perceived representational imbalance has even led director Andre Gregory to ask whether subscribers "maintain or strangle a theatre." At once enabling and inhibiting, subscribers incarnate the button-down bourgeois straw man that modern theater so pugnaciously and productively resists. Casting patrons as philistines and dinosaurs, subscriber bashing upstages high modernism's rejection of the uncultured masses. Subscribers uncomfortably remind us that even the most avowedly not-for-profit theaters need playgoers who pay, prompting disgruntled Australian actress Anna Broinowski to cunningly dub them "a bank of semi-comatose." While money-minded marketing managers and communications officers flatter subscribers in pre-show announcements and promotional leaflets, artistically inclined playwrights, directors, actors, and critics compound subscription's reputation for stifling the performance repertoire and subverting the ideal that theater audiences reflect society as a whole. By turns shorthand for and negative impression of the audiences they contentiously represent, subscribers toggle between endowing and debarring. Although spectatorship theorists like Susan Bennett and Christopher Balme have emphasized what Balme calls the "closed circuit" of subscription audiences, an account that attends to both sides of these contradictions would help us better understand subscribers' contributions to theater history. When we actually read theater subscription lists, we see that the individuals named on them have not always been as uniform as critics suppose. In fact, this study argues that subscribers have been responsible for determining the very values we assign to audience and repertoire today.
Subscribers first took up their alternately cliquish and community-building roles at a time when "the drama" had reached its much-bemoaned nadir as an art form—replete, its critics claimed, with hack writing, ham acting, and the pursuit of profit above all else. Theater historians often quote Matthew Arnold's 1879 injunction to "organise the theatre," but so far none has acknowledged that this call for a professional not-for-profit sector was answered by different subscription schemes. While it had long been possible to subscribe to the professional theater by contributing to a theater building fund, renting a private box, or purchasing a season ticket (newspaper advertisements suggest that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this practice was used far more frequently for operas, concerts, and exhibitions than for plays), the new West End model seeking profitable longer runs that appeared in the 1860s undermined any desire to subscribe to a theater as such. From a consumer's perspective, late Victorian playgoers had never seemed so powerful: increasing numbers voted with their pocketbooks every week, ensuring that unpopular productions met a quick death while crowd favorites were extended for indefinite runs and carbon-copy provincial tours. And yet, spectators from across Britain and Ireland became increasingly frustrated that their options had been vetted for them by London theater managers and the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays—up until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain's Office read and licensed every play before it could appear onstage. Darkened auditoriums and new rules proscribing demonstrative behavior further constrained audiences. Until spectators could find a way to "bind themselves together," as one theater reformer later put it, their power would remain fundamentally passive and the repertoire fundamentally profit driven.
Enter subscription, which has a long history in the English language, first emerging in the fifteenth century to signify an individual's signed consent to articles of religion. Six hundred years on, one study cites contemporary playgoers in Britain, Australia, and the United States who claim to subscribe "religiously" to theater companies, which in turn represent just a handful of the many enterprises "raising money for a particular purpose by collecting contributions from a number of individuals," to borrow a rung from the OED definition. One way to make sense of these centuries of schemes would be to describe a gradual widening of access. Where in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, relatively small clusters of male aristocrats contributed relatively large sums of money to subscription lists for anything from lexigraphy books to masquerade balls to army barracks, the rise of associational life and the lowering of subscription fees meant that subscription eventually came to be defined by its relation to a mixed, middle-class public. By 1800, the contrasting terms "private subscription" and "public subscription" indicated whether this general public was excluded from or invited onto lists funding enterprises as varied as clubs and concerts; hospitals and charities; libraries and schools; prisons and turnpikes. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the growth of trade unionism and the popularity of shilling, penny, and farthing fees signaled that this concept of a subscribing public had expanded to include the laboring classes, who contributed to schemes private (such as workmen's penny banks) and public (such as tributes for statesmen like William Gladstone). Operating within this homegrown tradition and drawing inspiration from independent and state-sponsored Continental theaters, turn-of-the-century theater subscription redistricted the public in seemingly contradictory ways: private-subscription schemes appealed to coteries, while public-subscription schemes appealed to crowds. At times, the subscription theater derived power from exclusivity, as when productions whose tickets had been sold by private subscription legally bypassed the Lord Chamberlain's censorship by theoretically offsetting the threat of mass social unrest. At other times, however, the subscription theater derived power from inclusivity, as when public subscription was held up as a model for making not-for-profit theater accessible to everyone. The target audience was not always clear, but a changing landscape at least was apparent to theater critic Arthur Bingham Walkley, who in 1902 declared that "like nearly everything else in the modern world the new theatrical demand has of late years been worked . . . with the usual apparatus of prospectuses, pamphleteering, and, above all, subscription lists."
At stake in the back and forth between exclusivity and inclusivity was a nascent expression of Schechner's wish that the subscription audience be representative. Like American college brochures today, turn-of-the-century British and Irish theater subscription lists were assessed for their diversity. In 1908, the English newspaper World fretted that London's Incorporated Stage Society "had done for itself" because the latest private-subscription lists revealed "what a number of 'influential' people had joined it"—some influencers would be essential, the paper hinted, but too many would spoil the soup. Striking a more congratulatory tone a few years later, the Sunday Chronicle reported that Liverpool Repertory Theatre's public-subscription lists "include the names of everybody who is anybody in Liverpool and district, and a large number of faithful pittites and galleryites who have rolled up with their mites," with the Daily Chronicle adding that they represented "all ranks and stations in life." Purporting proportions of different social strata, the press characterized subscription audiences for readers. So did pen pals: in a private letter to George Bernard Shaw, socialist Sidney Webb mused that Harley Granville Barker's Kingsway Theatre mailing list subscribers were nearly all "Fabians and Aristocrats." That Webb collected this list, as well as the lists for the Stage Society and Liverpool Rep, in order to solicit some 5,000 potential subscribers for his and Shaw's embryonic magazine, the New Statesman, confirms that subscription has always been a minority activity: whatever their professed privacy or publicity, most of the theater schemes discussed in the following chapters list fewer than 1,500 subscribers—the apparent limit to the number of individuals with whom one could cooperate at the turn of the century who were "interested in drama, and largely in Shaw," as Webb described them. But rather than signal a lack of interest in the burgeoning not-for-profit theater, these numbers figure subscribers standing in for their fellow citizens. At a time when women, the working classes, and the Irish were advocating for greater political representation outside the theater, subscribers gained the right to determine repertoires and policies on the rest of the public's behalf.
Webb's paper chase anticipates the robust exchange of acquisition lists among theaters and other arts organizations today. As he and Walkley remind us, subscription comprises an extremely material apparatus of pamphlets, prospectuses, and other printed ephemera. In this way, subscription challenges any assumption that theatrical collectivity is confined to the live performance event. Of all the arts, theater is most celebrated for its capacity to gather a limited audience in a specific place for a particular duration of time. But Peggy Phelan's evocative claim that performance "leaves no visible trace" has always seemed like half the story when confronting theater archives that overflow with sketches, playbills, promptbooks, press clippings, photographs, and video recordings. As we parse past performances with students and colleagues today, we are accustomed to recognizing these ephemera as mere traces of irreproducible happenings, like breadcrumbs leading to people and places we'll never ultimately reach. When such documents contradict each other, upending our most oft-repeated legends about the Globe Theatre's humanistic layout or the Ubu Roi premiere's revolutionary riot, the archive only further "performs the institution of disappearance," to borrow Rebecca Schneider's haunting formulation. Foraging for proper nouns, we have lost sight of how playgoers actually interacted with these materials before, during, and after the performance event.
Turn-of-the-century subscribers were hardly the only playgoers treading ink. Thanks to increasing mechanization of lithographic printing, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, new theatrical ephemera like souvenir programs, picture postcards, and colored posters joined up with elegant reading editions and theater trade journals such as The Era and The Stage. Playgoers began to be defined by the copy as well as by the company they kept: in the New Age, critic Ashley Dukes claimed he was able to spot gallery first-nighters who clutched issues of the Sunday Referee—"that healing plaster for the wounded pride of actors and dramatists"—and who fondled programs "like a sacred relic of the Church, a leaf of a palm branch or a fragment of the true Cross, carried off as a trophy and added to the pile." By the 1910s, it was common for American programs to be decked with blank spaces for the "name of the play, the friend or friends you were with, and where you dined after the performance," in a print extension of the scrapbook. Print imbued theatergoing with metaphor: actor-manager George Alexander made his St. James's Theatre tickets of pasteboard so they would look like railway passes, while across the channel André Antoine embossed his to resemble wedding invitations. Arnold Bennett even proclaimed that print was holding the theater back: "the organs which give special attention to the theatre, and by their adjectival exertions promote the sale of photographs and postcards and the collecting of 'souvenirs,' are utterly reactionary in tone." Yet by the next year, Bennett had published his play What the Public Wants in a special supplement of the literary magazine the English Review to coincide with the Stage Society's jubilee production, which subsequently figured last in a Chiswick Press volume of one hundred souvenir programs. As theater adopted and inflected Victorian publishing taxonomies to demarcate high-minded drama from trivial entertainment, subscription sharpened the aggregative impulse behind the souvenir. The evening bill's familiar lists of plays and players were amplified across a variety of printed ephemera to suggest literary repertoires and collaborative ensembles, while circulated lists of subscribers evoked newly cooperative audiences. Quantitatively, subscription offered reams of seemingly hard data: of subscribers and their contributions, of actors, and especially of plays—English, foreign, new, old, one acts, three acts—all meticulously recounted next to the incomes and expenditures in which subscribers now were literally invested. Qualitatively, subscription created virtual stages on which subscribers could enact and reimagine their social relationships, whether by pinning their tickets together in order to secure adjoining seats, or by crowding newspaper columns with letters protesting unfair treatment from theater managers, or simply by reading their name—or a name—next to others on a list.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scholars closest to coming up with a vocabulary for these qualitative interactions have been historians of subscription book publication, a practice whose heyday had been some hundred and fifty years earlier. Thomas Lockwood has remarked that the spelling out of true names, which at that time was reserved for marriage and death registers unless you were a criminal or a bankrupt, gave subscription lists both a homosocial clubby-ness and a "slightly pornographic frisson." Sometimes more than slightly: when book historian Pat Rogers claimed that "few facts in literary discussion are so unambiguously facts as the names of subscribers," he probably wasn't thinking of the smutty travel narrative A Voyage to Lethe (1741), whose fifteen fictitious subscribers all had "cock" in their surnames, including "Sir Roger Allcock," "Lord Lobcock," and "Alderman Slycock." Though the democratization of subscription ensured that readers a century and a half later were far more accustomed to encountering a variety of names in print, the subscribers who appear in the following chapters raise different red flags. While the proper names circulated in private annual reports might appear more innocuous than the mask-like pseudonyms bandied about in public correspondence columns, be the latter playful ("An Enemy of the People") or earnest ("The Woman in the Stalls"), the fact remains that any subscriber's name still invites suspicion—if not of identity at least of motive. Even before the subscription theater, subscribing had long been synonymous with both performing and being performed for: throughout the nineteenth century, the caricature of the passive and blubbering John Bull who could be documentarily seduced into subscribing to anything jostled alongside that of the duplicitous self-promoter who subscribes to charity only so that others might see her name in print. For both kinds of subscriber, the putative funding goal mattered less than identifying with a particular community.
Whether that is ultimately exciting or off-putting depends on your reaction to the machinations of one Bristol Little Theatre manager who in the 1920s mailed invitational postcards to the city's 128 registered dentists explaining that the first act of the company's latest production took place in a dental surgery (the play was Shaw's You Never Can Tell); his efforts anticipated San Diego Repertory Theatre marketers who seventy years later would produce specific season prospectuses for white, Latinx, and African American subscribers emphasizing the text and images with which marketers hoped each group would identify. Were theater marketers rolling out a red carpet or a blindfold? Subscription ephemera primed playgoers to sit together in a theater believing that at least some members of the audience had read the same materials as they had—since theaters were becoming darker and playgoers quieter, this was an increasingly easy belief to accept. But as surely as subscribers began to get typecast by eager "subscription hunters," they also were newly able to represent both their own and other citizens' interests in such a way that gendered honorifics, classed pseudonyms, and provincial postcodes worked in the opposite direction to prize apart the stage from its regulatory bodies: to give subscribers actual as opposed to imaginary ownership of the theater. Subscription set the stage, or the template, for audience delegates to talk back to the Lord Chamberlain, metropolitan managers, and wealthy producer patrons and eventually to form alliances with new institutions: the postwar Arts Council of Great Britain; national theaters in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales; the academic study of World Theater. Even today, subscription forces us to ask how the public inside the theater relates to the public outside it. Do playgoers stand in for the rest of society, or do they represent particular communities within it? Are audience communities instantaneous and ephemeral, or do the loyalties that playgoers feel toward one another begin before the performance and continue long after it? Do playgoers experience a sense of equality toward those seated next to them or in other sections of the theater—and even if they do, do they feel equal to the characters represented onstage or to the actors playing those roles, or to the citizens beyond the theater walls?
My chapters aim to identify the different theatrical collectivities that subscription introduced into the modern theater. Chapter 1 argues that in addition to evading the Lord Chamberlain's censorship, private-subscription play-producing clubs such as the Independent Theatre Society and the Incorporated Stage Society trained audiences to imagine a performance library that could be compiled, catalogued, and chosen from at will—the Stage Society even had a library but no permanent theater. Though their critics compared subscription societies to laboratories and medical museums whose unlicensed wares would not appeal to the general public, quantitative analysis reveals that societies introduced nearly a third of the most frequently revived plays and nearly half of all new translations to the commercial repertoire from 1890 to 1959. Even more crucially, subscription societies assembled the very idea of a modern dramatic repertoire by listing plays in their prospectuses, programs, and annual reports, whose supposedly private contents were trumpeted and then picked apart by the national public press. Subscription lists and newspaper accounts gendered playgoing as female and playwriting as male, yet both were figured as influencing the repertoire. That most subscription theatergoers were middle-class women, many of them unmarried, was particularly subversive, since this was the very demographic the Lord Chamberlain most sought to protect. By adopting the graphic codes and distribution strategies used by other turn-of-the-century political clubs for their prospectuses, membership forms, and annual reports—and carrying over that aesthetic to programs, posters, and even tickets—the Stage Society capitalized on a ready apparatus for organizing and circularizing. The subscription ephemera in this first chapter trouble our traditional disciplinary assumptions about ephemera and literary value, demonstrating how unmarried middle-class women used printed materials to shape a literary theater authored and regulated by men.
Chapter 2 expands to the provincial repertory theater movement whose spread was assiduously tracked in the Stage Society's annual reports. Metropolitan repertorists compared provincial playgoers to schoolchildren in need of teaching, patients in need of nursing, and savages in need of civilizing. For repertory companies in Glasgow, Dublin, and Liverpool, public subscription challenged repertorists' analogies by representing playgoers more equitably as citizen shareholders. The provincial press transformed sheets of newsprint into crowdfunding platforms by publishing appeals, prospectuses, and subscription forms that readers could cut out and mail in. Writing letters to newspaper editors, subscribers took up pseudonyms representing their class, gender, and age, staking a claim to the day-to-day running of the theater and setting themselves apart from the professional critics whose priorities differed from their own. Since correspondents from the pit and gallery were accorded the same typographical treatment as those from the stalls and dress circles, their letters further challenged the hierarchy of the physical theater; however, because correspondence columns more often were filled by lower-middle-class patrons, wealthier playgoers were perceived as less influential in the provinces, while the reverse was true in London. Most surprising to us today, playgoers saw public subscription in civic terms that exceeded the representative authority of democratically elected city councils. Audiences considered public-subscription theaters to be "Citizens' Theatres" and "public institutions," even though the theaters technically were privately owned. Because theaters represented only a few of the many turn-of-the-century public-subscription initiatives, including hospitals, schools, libraries, and museums, subscription ephemera shed light on provincial newspapers' wider role in constituting a civic performance space.
Chapter 3 pivots from subscription lists that circulated around the stage to those that featured on it as props in plays by Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, St. John Hankin, Elizabeth Robins, John Galsworthy, Arthur Wing Pinero, William Boyle, and other turn-of-the-century playwrights. In the hands of characters who give or collect subscriptions to any number of non-theatrical funds and societies, these props smuggled the public plot into the private drawing room and help explain how so-called "social drama" was able to bring large crowds to the stage while keeping casts small. Subscription-list props register complementary and competing political affiliations: metonymically, they represent otherwise absent groups among whom the lists circulate, from provincial constituents to gentlemen bachelors; metaphorically, they represent further unseen groups on whose behalf subscribers claim to speak, such as poor widows and orphans. That such props enter onto the figurative "backstage" of the drawing room and then exit again into the public world underscores the theatricality of subscription, as characters like ambitious politicians and industrious nubiles participate in ostensibly collectivist endeavors with the selfish intention of getting elected or married; meanwhile, crowds of unseen subscribers gather offstage in order to be entertained: to hear bands play or politicians orate. By alternately aligning subscribing with performing and being performed for, subscription-list props alerted audiences to the dangers of passive, uncritical spectatorship, even as such props made playgoers reluctant to actually subscribe. The contemporaneous vogue for charity matinees, whose repertoire avoided plays with subscription-list props, instead staging massive crowd scenes in which hundreds of actors appeared onstage, suggests that audiences were more willing to contribute money when crowds were identified as performers rather than as spectators. Spotlighting subscription lists as well as petitions, letters, signed terms, collecting books, checkbooks, notebooks, visitors' books, and even lists of eligible bachelors, this chapter posits that ephemera—while not as advanced as telephones, gramophones, radio, or film; or as enduring as statues or monuments—were preeminent props because they circulated between onstage and offstage, showing how papers that were visible to the audience might stand in for persons who were not. This chapter argues that in the act of committing their names and subscriptions to paper, citizens engaged with ephemera as a form of representational politics.
Chapter 4 moves from thinking of subscribers as metaphorical performers to thinking about them as literal ones taking part in amateur theater groups spread across Britain's and Ireland's cities, towns, and villages. Far from being incidental, paying to play was a precondition for establishing the social function of amateur theater. While amateurs frequently get defined both by and in opposition to the professional theater industry, subscription enabled amateurs to dictate the terms for professional involvement, whether this meant rejecting the standards and priorities of professional playwrights and actors or pooling funds to pay copyright fees and hire outside professional producers in order to satisfy artistic ambitions or ape commercial trends. Even though the amateur movement vaunted the inclusivity of its subscription lists, promising clerks, plumbers, typists, and maids the opportunity to play starring roles alongside their social superiors, in practice, performing with multiple groups counted more than loyally paying your dues, but wealth counted most of all, with amateurs who paid the highest subscriptions wielding the greatest influence over cast lists. By contrast, the amateur groups that were most often described as "democratic" were the ones that excluded individuals who did not vote with the party, work at the factory, identify with the gender, or otherwise share in the aims of the institution to which the group was connected, yet which thereby made space for subscribers to theatrically transcend the identities that connected them to those institutions in the first place. As women played men, laborers played emperors, pastors played lechers, and mutes played speakers, a parallel discourse of authenticity rooted conversations about performance in the everyday, anticipating the postwar performative turn in anthropology and sociology. If repertory theaters in cities relied on provincial newspapers to create a sense of community, amateur groups in towns and villages used ephemera to manufacture artificial distance, from spectators writing anonymous letters in order to avoid offending friends and neighbors, to actors withholding their names from printed programs in order to facilitate professional incognito. Programs especially manifested amateurs' competing desires to belong to an acknowledged community and to become somebody else, with amateurs fixating on the program seller as a figure who, by virtue of distributing ephemera, vacillated between marginality and significance.
The final chapter asks what happens when subscribers abandon the theater building entirely, as a disaffected Edward Gordon Craig did when he quit Britain and devised a virtual stage in The Mask, a theatrical little magazine that he published in Florence from 1908 to 1929. Craig roamed the world collecting names, enlisting imaginary contributors and real subscribers as far afield as Japan, Syria, South Africa, and Bolivia with an accumulative fervor that impelled his editorial practices and theatrical theories alike. Alongside articles and essays on theater history and theory, The Mask published a number of imagined dramatic dialogues between Craig, who played the autocratic "Stage Director," "Critic," or "Editor," and his subscribers, who played the respective "Playgoer," "Professional Performer," or "Queer Reader." Casting subscribers in roles may have required putting words in their mouths, but as Craig's interlocutors switched between theatergoers and theater professionals, his dramatic dialogues prompted subscribers to behave like stage performers, and performers to see themselves as readers. By allowing Craig to be simultaneously in England and attacking it from outside, the mobile Mask helped to separate "Theater" as subject from "theater" as building, launching an idea of World Theater that reflected the journal's international subscription lists even while Craig tried to convince English readers to give him a literal theater of his own. Letters to editors, submitted designs, and testimonial postcards reveal that subscribers around the world saw the journal as a metaphorical theater in which they alternately were encouraged to spectate or to perform but always to pay. For a study in which ephemera have facilitated not only theaters but so many other non-print initiatives, periodical subscription brings together ends and means. This chapter contends that Craig envisioned a new relationship between theater and reading in which annotating text was both a method for realizing stage productions and a performance for other readers.
It is worth emphasizing that my chapters do not follow a strict chronology: Craig's magazine in some ways acts as a bridge from the late Victorian play-producing societies to the new stagecraft championed by repertory theaters, and both play-producing societies and repertory theaters were established to perform several of the plays that featured subscription lists as props. Rather, each chapter offers a test case for subscription's democratic aspirations, asking how subscribers acted and spoke as representatives for a wider public. Philosophers from Cicero to Hobbes and Rousseau have located the emergence of political representation in the world of theater, specifically in the idea of persona—originally, the clay, wooden, or bark mask worn by Roman actors. Whether affixing "true" or pseudonymous names to their contributions, turn-of-the-century subscribers performed not just as themselves but also, more metaphorically, for and on behalf of other citizens. Subscribers substituted or stood in for other members of society in whose names the theaters had been established—those who might one day visit the theaters or share in the repertoire—with activities that ranged from drafting and circulating articles of association, to electing and seeking positions on theater managing committees, to discussing their own and others' views about theater in meetings and in public and private correspondence. Such relatively subdued gestures inside theaters have helped subscribers to pass unnoticed in a period more often celebrated for alienating and antagonizing audiences—for prompting early exits and riots (as though either phenomenon had not also characterized the commercial theater of the previous century). Challenging familiar narratives about the scandalized bourgeois or the rowdy Irishman, this study proposes that subscription audiences made theater fundamentally more representative. At the same time, subscribers made theatergoing both more collective and more critical—two values that often get opposed in contemporary theorizations of spectatorship.
If a new age of theatrical consent sounds too utopian, we should bear in mind that subscribers were not all treated equally. Amateur-theater subscribers who paid the highest fees lobbied producers to keep lower-paying servants from starring roles, for example, while The Mask's minority of readers with English mailing addresses received far more of Craig's attention than the bulk of his subscribers who resided elsewhere. Beyond subscribers themselves, as August Wilson reminds us and as newspaper correspondence confirms, many playgoers or potential playgoers did not feel at all represented by the subscription audiences who claimed to speak for them, whether due to differences in race or, more often in this study, in gender, class or province. Yet while such evidence suggests that subscribers large and small took advantage of the opportunity to express at least their own dramatic priorities, together subscription audiences advanced an ideal that was greater than the sum of their parts. To fully account for subscribers' representational power, this study performs close readings of printed ephemera that often get dismissed for storing rather than generating meaning, paying particular attention to how lists of plays and playgoers inspire analogies for theatrical collectivities—whether by transforming audiences from schoolchildren into shareholders, or repertoires from laboratories into libraries. The recent spate of books on lists with adjectives like "charm," "pleasures," and "deserving of a wider audience" in their titles suggests that lists traditionally have been seen as boring, when they have been seen at all. By reading lists and the ephemera that embed them such as programs, tickets, posters, postcards, prospectuses, annual reports, and provincial newspapers, the following chapters hope to offer a less bounded perspective on the tension between page and stage, which has traditionally been debated in terms of published drama. Redirecting attention from the printed book to the printed non-book, and telescoping out from theatrical subscription ephemera to non-theatrical subscription ephemera, this study contributes to a growing body of research into new forms of collectivity enacted by day-to-day printed materials.
Recognizing how ephemera create meaning in day-to-day terms does not mean ignoring what they tell us at a historical distance. Many of this study's arguments incorporate digital or quantitative methods, drawing especially on a database of 23,000 productions assembled from J. P. Wearing's reference series, The London Stage, 1890-1959. Every data set has limitations that mirror its strengths, and a focus on the professional metropolitan stage inevitably means that the activities of provincial, amateur, and overseas playgoers get short shrift—a problem of which subscribers were well aware, as Chapters 2, 4, and 5 demonstrate. At their most useful, quantitative methods help us break down disciplinary barriers that frequently appear in studies of modern theater. While drama scholars tend to applaud the emergence of modern playwrights like Shaw and Synge, who, as the story goes, saved the stage after a century of decline, theater historians urge us to remember that theater was the most popular form of entertainment during the same century. That so many of the data set's most performed plays were infrequently revived suggests trade-offs inherent to competing kinds of ephemerality determined less by playwrights than by playgoers: long runs over a relatively short period of time, or short runs over a relatively long period of time—a phenomenon most familiar to book historians in terms of steady sellers versus best sellers. Although this study focuses on an activity designed to transcend the commercial theater's limitations, Chapter 1 reveals that many subscription plays in fact went on to become commercial successes. As subscription cuts across the literary and the popular, it further suggests that scholarship on modern coteries and crowds might find common ground with a wider-ranging investment in audiences, stretching as far back as the distinction between private theaters and public playhouses in early modern England and as far afield as, for example, the samurai-exclusive noh and commoner-inclusive kabuki of Edo Japan—both sets of traditions get taken up by Craig in Chapter 5. Rather than choose between coterie and crowd, turn-of-the-century subscribers combined tendencies of the private clubhouse with the public playhouse in order to achieve a theater-making practice that better represented the audience.
Both up close and at a distance, then, the subscription theater makes visible how subscription theatrically expanded the terms of political representation from the later years of Victoria's reign to the beginning of World War II. As the following pages will suggest, subscription schemes underpinned and extended far beyond theaters to the period's most recognizable political movements, such as women's suffrage, trade unionism, and Irish nationalism. If, in the eighteenth century, subscription was a game for male aristocrats, by the twentieth it was being held up as a right for everyone who had a farthing or more to give: women as well as men, working class as well as wealthy, provincials as well as metropolitans. For the first and possibly only time in these lands, citizens valued a representative subscription list as an end in itself. Claims about whether subscription lists were "democratic" or "representative" cropped up in discussions of not just theaters but also Diamond Jubilee gifts, soldiers' memorials, workers' dispensaries, voluntary schools, cathedral organs, temperance associations, auto-cycle clubs, and Conservative societies, among a tremendous variety of enterprises whose managing committees typically permitted subscribers to vote and hold office. In this way, subscription gave citizens the ability to participate in what was in legal respects a more inclusive alternative to Parliament and local government, from which so many members of the public—namely women and propertyless men—were excluded. Moreover, by prompting citizens to imagine lists as democratic and representative, subscription paved the way for the public subsidy of civic subscription initiatives, including theaters, hospitals, universities, museums, parks, tram lines, and electric grids, even as subscription initiatives frequently were seen to offer greater representational opportunities to citizens compared to government-administered equivalents. On the other hand, subscription perpetuated plenty of undemocratic practices, too. Because better-off subscribers were able to buy outsize influence (for example, by contributing to political parties and campaign funds), subscription further compounded the problems of unequal wealth distribution that had led trade unionist George Howell to coin the phrase "one man, one vote" in 1880. Yet if wealthy male subscribers continued to exert the greatest influence in many spheres of society—playwrights depict such gentlemen clubbing together to grease the wheels for their own social advancement while feigning benevolence—other subscribers managed their own enterprises "on democratic lines" even at the apparent expense of inclusivity—as when factory workers voted to exclude nonworkers from their union executive committees, or when middle-class women subscribed to and administered anti-suffragist societies. Whether subscribers adopted public-spirited guises to selfish ends or employed democratic tactics to exclude or to limit the rights of others (justifiably or not), such contradictions hint at the complexities of determining if and when subscription, or indeed any political model, fulfills its representational ideals.
But why did turn-of-the-century citizens attach such aspirations to subscription in the first place? Why did they spend so much time and not inconsiderable amounts of money adding their names to and evaluating the contents of and going door to door with and seeing plays about subscription lists? This book asks what potential collectivities subscription made available to those citizens, and what debts our own attitudes toward subscription and other forms of collective funding today owe to their encounters with ephemera, drama, and democracy.